When I first became interested in ceramics, I never knew just how cool it was going to be. You’re constantly up to your elbows in wet clay. If you’re lucky, you have your pick of an endless and beautiful array of glazes. And there are also many different firing techniques: gas, electric, soda, salt, wood, raku, etc. There’s just a huge range of diversity, each technique producing a unique finish that you can’t get any other way.
It can also be pretty dangerous. I mean, you’re dealing with kilns that can reach thousands of degrees, in which the pieces somehow transform from fragile dirt into some resilient rock and the glaze turns into molten glass that magically settles into beautiful, organic patterns.
I got the chance to take part in 2 raku firings in high school. It was pretty small scale. We fired in tiny kilns that we would manually lift off of its platform. Then using tongs, we transferred the pieces into trashcans full of newspaper, let them burn down, and then delivered the freshly fired pieces onto the grassy hillside.
In college, I got to participate in a more sophisticated process. Dressed in a heatproof (and hopefully fireproof) suit, I was given the task of removing the pieces from the kiln with very long and heavy tongs. Despite the suit, I could still feel the immense heat radiating from the kiln. I quickly, and as carefully as possible, deposited the pieces from the kiln into waiting trashcans filled with wood shavings so they could continue their process to create the iconic metallic finish. I, unfortunately, am also the clumsy type and actually dropped one of my classmate’s pieces onto the concrete, shattering it into a million tiny pieces. Right in front of him. I swear it happened in slow motion. (I still have nightmares about it…)
But the whole experience really was amazing. I came across this video the other day, showing a ceramist named Alex Long removing one of his 50 lb. vessels from a raku kiln using his hands (conveniently protected by a fireproof suit) that you can check out if you’d like to get a better feel for the process. Completely mesmerizing.